The TARDIS controls are broken and the Doctor doesn’t know if even the TARDIS can survive being immersed in lava, so he very reluctantly activates an emergency device that even he’s not sure what it will do. Zoe notices that there’s now nothing appearing through the TARDIS’s monitor, to which the Doctor grimly replies that they’re nowhere. At Zoe’s persistent prompting, the Doctor admits there is something out there, but it’s an unknown dimension outside the universe, and warns that they shouldn’t even consider exploring. However, Jamie and Zoe both become convinced that they see glimpses of their homes through the monitor. Zoe steps out and vanishes, with Jamie following behind her. The Doctor stays behind, sensing a hostile consciousness, and focuses on it telepathically. However, the consciousness pressures the Doctor to leave the TARDIS when Jamie and Zoe are threatened by robots. The Doctor thinks he’s rescued his companions and escaped in the TARDIS, but suddenly it appears that the TARDIS has fallen apart and Jamie and Zoe are stuck clinging to the console as it floats in a void.
Lost in a forest, the Doctor comes across an Englishman in 18th century clothing, who tells the Doctor that he is accused of treason by “the master” (but not that Master) before disappearing. Next a group of children in Victorian garb accost the Doctor and barrage him with riddles before threatening him with a sword and demanding that he “rearrange.” The Doctor realizes that they’re speaking of anagrams and makes the word “words,” which changes the sword into a dictionary. The children are pleased and tell him that he may be suitable before running off. Next the Doctor comes across a pictograph puzzle that challenges him to put the correct parts of a face on a frozen and faceless Jamie, but the Doctor messes up and gives Jamie the wrong face, giving the Doctor the “wrong” Jamie, although this Jamie remembers everything that’s happened. Together they save Zoe, again using word play. Climbing up one of the “trees,” Jamie notices all the trees in the forest are letters and spell out cliched proverbs. The three are soon captured by toy soldiers, who bring them to a clearing where they’re attacked by a unicorn, but the Doctor causes the unicorn to disappear by challenging his companions to deny its existence. The Doctor suspects they’re being tested by this “master” character.
Jamie gets frozen and loses his face again, but this time the Doctor gets the puzzle right. The trio stumble across a cavernous maze, with only a ball of thread to keep them from getting lost. In the middle of the maze they come across the Minotaur. Again, though, Zoe and the Doctor dispel it by denying its existence. While looking for Jamie, who was lost in the maze, the Doctor and Zoe comes across the 18th century man again. The Doctor figures out that the man is the titular Gulliver from Gulliver’s Travels, and that he can only speak the dialogue from the book. From Gulliver, the Doctor learns that the master of the land resides in a citadel. Meanwhile Jamie, eluding the toy soldiers, climbs a mountain using a “rope” that turns out to be Rapunzel’s hair. Jamie finds that “Rapunzel’s tower” is actually the Citadel, a hi-tech repository for fiction, along with a ticker that reads out the current adventures of the Doctor and Zoe, through which he learns that the two are facing Medusa.
The story told by the ticker ends when the Doctor uses a mirror to defeat Medusa, rather than the sword like the story anticipated. Outside the caverns on their way to the Citadel, the Doctor and Zoe are confronted by the Karkus, a superhero from the 21st century. Zoe manages to get the Karkus on their side by defeating him with judo. Reunited with Jamie in the Citadel, the Doctor and Jamie compare notes, and the Doctor guesses that if he had followed the confrontation with Medusa as anticipated he and Zoe would have become fictional beings. Robots then force the Doctor and the companions into the master’s chamber. It turns out that the dread master was a late nineteenth century writer of adventure stories for a boys’ magazine, who was abducted and hooked up to a central computer in order to run the “Land of Fiction.” The master is getting old, and the computer wants an immortal replacement: the Doctor.
Zoe and Jamie, while attempting to find an escape route from the Citadel, are captured and turned into fiction. The Doctor still refuses to volunteer to run the Land of Fiction and escapes. He finds Zoe and Jamie, but they act strangely and repeat the same dialogue, proving the master’s claim that they’ve been turned into fictional characters. Using the Karkus and his superstrength and Rapunzel’s hair, the Doctor breaks into a writing console, but realizes that he can’t defeat the master by writing a story with himself as a character without turning himself into fiction. The master writes that Jamie and Zoe have realized that the Doctor is their enemy and lure him into a trap. With his adversary imprisoned, the master hooks the Doctor up to the central computer, but realizes too late he’s only made the Doctor into an equal. Using Zoe and Jamie as the protagonists, the Doctor and the master enter a narrative war, using the Karkus, d’Artagnan, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Blackbeard. Deciding that the Doctor is too much of a threat to its existence, the central computer orders that the Doctor be destroyed, but Zoe and Jamie overload the central computer and trick the robots into attacking the computer’s console. They rescue the master, who has forgotten everything that has happened to him, and escape the Citadel, only to find the Land of Fiction slowly vanishing around them. The Doctor hopes that the destruction of the central computer will send them back to the TARDIS and the master back to his own time, but Zoe frets that they might just be erased from existence. The Doctor can only reply, “We’ll soon find out!”
I’ve complained about how the show has lost the sense of “anything can happen!” that prevailed during the First Doctor era, and this episode is definitely a delightful callback to that time in the show’s history. As classic as it is, the Second Doctor era often tapped into a pretty rigid formula, so an adventure like this is much welcome.
Even without that context, though, this is a strong serial in its own right, and usually gets included in “Best of Classic Doctor Who” lists. The BBC also included it as the sole representative of the Second Doctor era in its Classic Doctor Who collection, currently on Netflix. It’s not hard to see why. It’s a briskly told story even across five episodes with some nice surrealness thrown in. Even the necessity of explaining away why there’s a replacement for Frazer Hines as Jaime because he became ill is made a natural if very weird part of the story.
For all that, it didn’t actually get a positive reception when it was first broadcast probably explaining why we didn’t get many more stories like this one through the rest of the classic era. However, it’s definitely become vindicated over time, with genuine bizarre and creepy moments, with a dash of postmodernism.